Interview: Sister Mary’s Rock Star Friends and Humble Mission

Project HOME marks 25 years of battling homelessness in Philadelphia.

sister mary

It’s been 25 years since Sister Mary Scullion and her associate, Joan Dawson McConnon, founded Project HOME with the aim of ending homelessness in Philly. Homelessness is still around, of course, but many Philadelphians have found education, employment, and a roof over their heads thanks to the organization. Project HOME celebrates this month with an anniversary gala — and the opening of 55 new units of affordable housing in partnership with rocker/philanthropist Jon Bon Jovi.

“There’s a lot of people and organizations here and a lot of progress has been made and there’s a lot to celebrate and be grateful for,” Scullion said recently, “but there’s still a lot of work to do.”

Scullion talked with Philly Mag about what she’s learned, the biggest challenges facing Project HOME, and if the organization is ready to carry on without her leadership.

It’s been 25 years since you co-founded Project HOME. Let’s start with the bottom-line assessment: Are the problems of homelessness and poverty in Philadelphia more or less intractable today, compared to a quarter century ago?

Great question. In many ways, we know what works. And there’s best practices and evidence-based solutions. So in that respect, I think we’re much further along in ending homelessness in our community.

So, having said that, I think the biggest challenge is the economy and how it impacts the bottom rung of the economic ladder. Today people are poorer than they were 25 years ago. There’s more people in poverty than there were 25 years ago. That automatically equates to more people experiencing homelessness. Studies around our country have shown that 10 percent of all people in the poorer sector of our society become homeless in a given year. So the more people that are poor, the more people that are gonna experience homelessness. It could be they lose a job, they lose their place, they have a mental illness and addiction, they are in an abusive situation. I mean, there’s many reasons that can put someone that’s very poor onto the streets. But the most common denominator of all people that are homeless is that they’re very poor.

Your organization provides a real continuum of assistance. There’s housing, there’s education, there’s medical care, help with job hunting…

Actually we have 101 people at Project HOME that are living here right now that have competitive employment. It’s part-time and full-time. And we have another 40 people that are involved in our social enterprises which, it’s not a competitive employment, but they make art and soap and candles and cranberry sauce and all kinds of things and sell them. We have another 20 people that are in internships, a paid internship and it might be at the Franklin Institute or at MANNA or different other organizations around the city.

So we actually have made tremendous progress with people getting entry-level jobs, but even if a person has a job full-time at minimum wage, it’s not sufficient often enough to pay the rent and the utilities and all the costs that are associated with housing in the city of Philadelphia.

Did you start out knowing that such an array of services would be needed or did you have to feel your way to that point?

When we started Project HOME, we called it Project HOME, H-O-M-E in caps, because H is for housing, O is for opportunities for employment, M is for medical care, and E is education. We actually did see that those four issues were needed to address homelessness, maybe one but maybe all four, depending upon a person’s situation. Today, we see those four issues still strategically involved in both ending and preventing homelessness. That is tremendously important.

One thing you have that you didn’t have 25 years ago, or at least I don’t think you did, was the friendship of famous rockstars. You’ll be joining with Jon Bon Jovi soon to open JBJ Soul Homes. How did that partnership come about?

The way it happened was Jon was the co-owner of the Soul (Arena Football League) team at that time, and he was staying at the Ritz Carlton on Broad Street. He looked out his window and saw someone just out in the bitter cold and got his sound engineer and said to him, “Can you find me an organization in this area that we could partner with to do something about this? It’s an intolerable condition.” So, long story short, they met with several organizations and they felt that Project HOME was a good fit for what Jon wanted to achieve, and he’s been involved ever since.

Over those eight years, what Jon has done through Project HOME, through the community of Project HOME, is he developed home ownership for low-income working poor people, in a neighborhood where we work to prevent homelessness. He also helped us develop housing for homeless veterans. His mom and dad were both veterans and so he has a special place in his heart for homeless veterans. He also helped us one winter do an emergency shelter for women who were still on the street. And then most recently, he has been a huge supporter of our permanent housing. So at Connelly House, which is right behind 1234 Market, we have 79 units of affordable housing for people with special needs. And then just now we’re going to open on April 22nd 55 units of affordable housing in Fairmount, Francisville section of the city right here at Broad and Fairmount.

Mayor Nutter appointed you to the ethics board a few years back. What have you learned about the city and its officials since then that you didn’t know before?

Well you know what, I was only able to serve on the ethics board for about a year or two. I don’t remember. So [pause]. It was an eye-opening experience and you got to see the diligence of many of the city workers and elected officials trying to comply with guidelines that help make things more transparent. And then, you know, there were politics as usual. That’s everywhere, that’s a part of the city life as well, we all well know.

In 2009 you were named one of the World’s Most Influential People by TIME. Why did you stick with Philly when you had maybe the whole world to work in?

Because there’s a lot of work that needs to be done in Philadelphia and a lot of wonderful leaders and partners to rub shoulders with and all politics is pretty much local. I love the city and I love the people that I work with here and there’s such a need here. It seems that this was the place to really focus and concentrate our efforts. We’ve gone and learned from people all over the United States, how to improve and enhance the work that we do. People from the United States and even internationally come and visit here at Project HOME to share our experience. So even though our work is very local, we work collaboratively with people from all across the United States and even, at times, around the world.

You are so closely identified with the work of Project HOME and you’ve also been at it a long time. How much longer do you want to continue?

I think it will become clear when — obviously, I love the work that I do and still feel that I hopefully have a little more to contribute. But we also look at the work of Project HOME with a long-term view. Joan and I both work hard to continue to bring on talent that can continue this work when we’re no longer here.

So you feel like you’re already working to leave the organization ready to carry on without you, then?

Yes, yes definitely. I mean that’s not going to happen tomorrow, I hope not, I’m still relatively young and I still have a lot of energy and, hopefully, life left in me. But every day is a new day and I guess the best way of putting this is you never know what tomorrow brings. I think if anything ever happened to either one of us today we have the talent and giftedness here in our organization to move it forward.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.